Playing The Last Guardian in 2016 is a little surreal, if only because it’s tough to believe that anyone is playing it at all. It was one of the games I was most excited to play when I started reviewing games way back in 2010, but the hype gradually withered into nothingness every time the game skipped another release date. Now it’s something of a bookend. Fumito Ueda’s follow up to Shadow of the Colossus arrives with relatively little fanfare on the heels of Final Fantasy XV, making December a very good month for games that spent ten years in development.
That relationship is also what makes The Last Guardian unique. Most mainstream video games are power fantasies, and even the ones that aren’t are built around the concept of cause and effect. You hit a button, and then something happens as a result. Hit the right buttons in the right order, and you get to move on to the next stage. As the player, you are self-reliant, which makes you solely responsible for your own forward progress.
The Last Guardian flagrantly violates those principles. Without Trico, the boy is helpless, a tiny, fragile thing trapped in a hostile world that exists at a menacing scale. You need Trico’s size and strength to escape, while he needs your guidance to figure out where to go next. That means that you’ll spend most of the game persuading the creature to assist you with various tasks.
The catch is that while you can issue commands – jump, sit, move, etc. – you don’t have direct control over Trico’s actions. There’s always a slight delay between your request and his response, and since Trico’s behavior is more cat than bird, you have to learn to be patient while he does things at his own pace. Trico has a mind of his own, and will often be more interested in passing butterflies than he is in you.
That independence makes Trico a collaborator rather than a tool, and it makes the relationship much more dynamic than the average NPC interaction. Your stomach drops the first time Trico plucks the boy out of a death fall, and there’s real tenderness in your efforts to calm Trico after a battle. Trico will panic whenever the boy is in danger, while the cries of distress are gut-wrenching whenever Trico is in pain. The Last Guardian asks you to cede control, to embrace and accept that feeling of powerlessness and to find alternative ways to achieve your goals. At its best, The Last Guardian teaches you that kindness and cooperation is more effective than urgency and aggressiveness.
At its worst, however, The Last Guardian is borderline unplayable, and that’s where the game starts to show its age. Most people probably won’t notice at first because The Last Guardian still looks stunning. The game lacks some of the photorealistic gloss that distinguishes more recent games, but it more than makes up for that with superb art direction and a cohesive aesthetic. Looking out over the valley conveys an appropriate sense of splendor and awe.
The trouble lies beneath the surface. Whatever systems Team Ico built when they first started working on The Last Guardian needed to be overhauled when genDESIGN and Sony Japan shifted it to the PS4, and many of the game’s mechanics do not seem to have the intended level of refinement.
That’s particularly true with regards to Trico. Thanks to the slight delay, the game rarely gives you explicit feedback when you hit a button. You have to wait a few moments to see whether or not Trico is doing what you asked. In many cases, you’ll have to repeat the same request multiple times before Trico acknowledges your presence.
That would be fine if you could trust the game to follow through. Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case. Though the delay is often deliberate – it makes button mashing counterproductive and forces you to be more gentle – at other times it’s all too clear that something has gone haywire. Trico will paw at the ground while lowing like a feathered cow, but you won’t be able to get him to do anything productive, as if he’s stuck in a loop that reduces him to a collection of affectionate animal tics. Thanks to unclear objectives, missed triggers, and a general lack of precision, Trico will frequently do the wrong thing even after you’ve done everything right.
Since it can take several minutes to coax Trico into the proper position, large chunks of the game are wasted on repeated attempts at simple puzzles. After enough repetitions, it starts to feel as if your input is negligible. You become a bystander waiting idly as the game amuses itself, like a hostage in what is supposed to be a symbiotic relationship.
That’s the problem. Despite the unique mechanics, The Last Guardian is still a puzzle game, which means that there are still linear obstacles to overcome. If Trico’s not cooperating, there’s not a whole lot you can do to move things along. When the game breaks, it breaks in an obvious and frustrating fashion. At one point, I tried to get his attention for several minutes without getting any kind of response, eventually reloading the checkpoint in desperation. I wanted to strangle Trico for the entire middle third of the game because there’s literally no way to move forward until you can snap him out of his reveries.
It’s a shame, because those technical bugs undercut many of The Last Guardian’s central themes. The game wants you to rely on your companion, but Trico violates your trust because he lacks the artificial intelligence needed to communicate more effectively. That’s not anyone’s fault – I’m guessing it’s an extraordinary programming task – but it is noticeable, and it diminishes the sense of companionship because it feels like there’s a structural power imbalance imposed on the relationship. Is Trico ignoring me because the game is broken, or is he ignoring me because we’re in a cut scene and I’m supposed to sit back and appreciate the moment? That brief uncertainty strips several scenes of much of their emotional resonance.
Thankfully, the game’s climax is a triumph at nearly every level, a harrowing thrill filled with terror, optimism, and loss that pays off almost everything that has happened up to that point. It does a lot to redeem the mechanical aggravations. Despite all of the struggles, Ueda is able to create beautiful moments without the use of words, and I was able to walk away from The Last Guardian convinced that I had participated in something special. I’m glad the game exists. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to play it.
I just wish I didn’t have to wade through so many petty annoyances to get there. The Last Guardian is supposed to be contemplative, but reflection is difficult when your blood pressure is in the stratosphere. That’s why I like the game more now than I did while I was playing it. With the benefit of hindsight, many aspects of the game are memorable and revolutionary, and I know The Last Guardian will stick with me for a while. I’m not sure whether the boy or Trico is the titular Guardian (you could make a plausible case for either), but it will be fascinating to have that conversation.
With that in mind, The Last Guardian at once fulfills and disappoints a decade of expectations. It doesn’t always work, but you can see what Team Ico was trying to accomplish and it’s a brilliant, laudable ambition. The Last Guardian makes you feel and it makes you think, and in that regard Fumito Ueda is still years ahead of the competition.
Our review copy of The Last Guardian was provided by Sony.
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